Only on 4Kids TV!
If you were a pre-teen in the late 90s and early 2000s 4Kids Entertainment is probably a household name. If you had any contact with the anime boom during those decades you’ve probably been exposed to one of their dubs and the resulting “reputation” they earned. Tonight, the Inveseman takes a different retrospective on the infamous long-defunct company.
For the purposes of the article, I’m going to attempt to take a profits-centered approach on my assessment of the company’s decisions and philosophy. After all, as much people like to think it is, entertainment isn’t a charity. So before we assess Alfred Khan’s company’s decisions we’re going to have to frame a few contexts first:
1. Acquiring anime is expensive!
It’s no joke. Getting the rights to dub, broadcast, distribute, and merchandise a television show is a pricey affair. For every Pokemon toy, DVD, or rerun out there, someone is getting a kickback to his or her paycheck. So when any license company is contemplating a series, it needs to make sure they at least break even. That said, even if you were able to buy the show, there’s no guarantee of getting the soundtrack. Look at JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. Many attempts to bring the manga or any spin-off games and merchandise run aground of copyright laws with various music artists or the record companies that manage them. The final kicker is that even if you get the anime you do want, you may have to pay for the licenses for anime you don’t want.
2. Editing anime is also expensive
If there is any editing to be had for FCC regulations, internal regulations, or otherwise, that costs money. There are artists you have to pay when you paint a giant sandwich over an onigiri or erase all written text from a signpost. If you could not secure the soundtrack, you will need to pay writers to compose a dub soundtrack.
3. 4Kids is not a big company
4Kids never really had a big stock presence and they were never even close to other entertainment giants. The highest a share ever cost was $90 when Pokemon first debuted but it leveled off at $8 and lower later on. While Disney could throw money for the best dubs, 4Kids could not obtain the expensive talent or technology for their dubs. They would hinge on the skin of their teeth based off whatever merchandise they could hawk at a Toys ‘R Us.
For American Audiences
With all those contexts framed, 4Kids was sitting on a tenuous footstool. It could’ve risen to stardom or have been a flash in the pan. So many of their decisions were hinged on getting by financially, working with what they had, and appealing to whatever powers that be. That in mind, let’s look at their biggest controversial policy, editing their dubs.
Network censors are a severe pain, and possibly “worse” than 4Kids in editing. Now part of the reason why cigarettes, guns, boobs, and Jesus are the four things ruining our country is thanks to the network and timeslot. 4Kids’ deals were with local channels, the WB and Fox, at early mornings in programming blocks intended for children. As a result, censors on these types of channels at these particular time periods are much stricter. If 4Kids had a deal with Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network (the latter of which they actually got) to broadcast on primetime television, we might have seen fewer edits, but money talks and such a deal might not have been financially viable back then. The chances of seeing non-blue Mr. Popo on the CW is pretty much the same as the odds of Yamcha winning another fight.
Now the issue with constant cultural edits was not foreseeing the effects of globalization; the company was essentially working on a last-decade business model of information spread so many of their cultural edits were unnecessary (disregarding attaching an absolute moral value to the evils of xenophobia, racism, etc.) and, more importantly, expensive. The dawn of the internet increased the spread of information, so many kids in the target age demographics were learning to access wider information. This information included two things which devastated the brand: piracy and the original uncut performances.
If we lived in a bubble where our only exposure to anime came from 4Kids, our pre-teen and teen selves would be none the wiser to jelly-filled donuts and the Shadow Realm. However, as young consumers, the internet peeled back the curtain to reveal that we were not getting the full product, only an edited tease, and whether or not such edits were valid or reasonable, assuming the customers to be idiots, it only makes sense the next action would be to complain about such “deception.” With the exception of perhaps the lowest end of the age demographics, 4Kids’ customers were leaving for greener pastures and there was nothing they could do to stop the rising internet community from opening the gate to their walled garden.
With these frameworks established, it was likely not prudent to localize One Piece or a few other shonen like Shaman King, which would’ve fared better on other networks at other times. Better choices would’ve been more child-oriented anime. Claims were made that uncut DVDs were on the way, but the company did not see them as a lucrative venture, which while incendiary towards fans, is reasonable when piracy, even with dubious subs, is an option. However, a cut dub DVD with the original Japanese performance may have been a decent compromise at significantly less cost, and most fans wouldn’t have complained.
Meanwhile other license companies knew what they were getting into. VIZ kept to their promise of releasing uncut Naruto DVDs, eventually phasing out edited content altogether. FUNimation aggressively pushed their dubs, eschewing cuts as well, and tried cracking down on piracy. With slightly bigger budgets, both companies were able to get the Big Three Jump Shonen, Naruto, Bleach, and One Piece, onto Cartoon Network. More importantly, both companies were able to adapt to the evolving anime trends while other companies went the way of the dinosaur.
Now already on shaky footing as the Pokemon fad died down (and left only the true OG fans #shotsfired) 4Kids went on their downward spiral. To cut costs and to adapt to the growing franchise, the fledgling Pokemon Company USA (now Pokemon Company International) decided to consolidate many of Pokemon’s assets from other companies, namely taking back the TCG from Wizards of the Coast and the anime from 4Kids. To both cut costs and be closer to their own product, TPCI would now handle production of the anime with help from TAJ Productions for talent sourcing for the dub. Other Nintendo and video game properties did admirably, but the Kirby and Sonic animes couldn’t match the titanic might of Pokemon. Incidentally of all the properties lost, there was a large number of Pokemon fans that wanted the dub to stay with 4Kids, but that is another story.
The loss of One Piece was probably for the best. One Piece was part of a package deal with Shaman King, which 4Kids was indeed eyeing, but they were forced to take One Piece as well. While the show is incredibly popular to no one’s surprise, and could have been every bit the cash-cow here as in Japan, 4Kids was locked into their much younger age demographic on much stricter networks and timeslots. In some regards, the company did try to recoup their purchase One Piece; there are phantoms haunting the internet of a very faithfully dubbed 4Kids One Piece, but 10AM on FOX local means it was trying to fit a very expensive square peg into nothing but round holes.
The final nail in the coffin was the lawsuit over Yu-Gi-Oh. TV Tokyo and Nihon Ad systems claimed 4.8 million dollars of missing money from royalties, home video, etc. Essentially, their claim was that 4Kids was distributing the Yu-Gi-Oh anime in secret and not coughing up the share of the money meant for the Japanese broadcasters. This long battle of litigation would not fare well for the company, and even after settlement, would shortly lead to the company leaving the NYSE and declaring bankruptcy in 2011. Much of their dubbing talent would be acquired by Konami, taking back the anime, and become “4K Media,” leaving 4Kids with nearly nothing. As for Konami taking back Yu-Gi-Oh, their troubles were only just beginning.
Losing the rest of their properties to Saban and others, 4Kids would become 4 Licensing Corporation. These days, you don’t really see them in entertainment or if at all. There are a few ventures into sporting goods, but they are minor and still preliminary at best.
Alas ye, 4Kids, you once had the ability to be America’s leading name in anime, but you couldn’t adapt with the times. Maybe the uncut DVDs could have been a reality with more money? Or perhaps the company did not see a blue ocean market that was worth satisfying in budding anime fans? At the very least, your “contributions” will be remembered by anime fans for years to come. Join me next time when I eat a delicious hamburger.
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